Syria goes dark

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Syria on Thursday was abruptly cut off from the Internet, two leading US Internet analysis firms said. Many mobile phone communications in Syria appeared to be cut off too, the BBC and several news organizations reported.

“Starting at 10:26 UTC (12:26pm in Damascus), Syria’s international Internet connectivity shut down,” an analyst with Internet monitoring firm Renesys wrote on the company’s blog  Thursday.  “In the global routing table, all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the Internet.”

“We are investigating the dynamics of the outage and will post updates as they become available,” the post continued.

Internet analysis firm Akamai confirmed the analysis, as seen in the graphic above.

The Syrian regime appeared to have cut off the telecom services, in what may be an attempt to make coordination harder for Syrian opposition forces, an activist outside of the country told Al Monitor. Continue reading

Exxon may pull out of southern Iraq

Exxon Mobil intends to pull out of southern Iraq, in favor of moving forward with its Kurdish oil contracts, an energy expert source told Al-Monitor Wednesday on condition of anonymity. The oil giant’s contracts with Iraq’s Kurdish entity have been a source of ongoing legal dispute with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

Exxon Mobil informed the State Department this week of its intent to pull out of southern Iraq, Reuters subsequently confirmed Thursday, citing an unnamed American official.

Exxon had sought unsuccessfully to renegotiate the terms of its contract with Baghdad central government authorities, but Iraqi leaders had not been willing to set such a precedent, the western energy expert source said.

Baghdad will be even less inclined to do so if Exxon moves forward with its Kurdish Regional Government oil exploration contracts, Iraq expert Denise Natali said.

Exxon has signed contracts to start drilling in Kurdish Iraq by the end of the year, Ben Lando, of the Iraq Oil Report, reported Thursday. “The company ‘will start moving dirt in December,'” one official told Lando.

The oil giant may be gambling, however, that it can “leverage Baghdad through the KRG,” Natali told Al-Monitor Thursday. Unlike smaller oil companies, “it has lots of time.”

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Rabbi linked to US lawmakers questioned in Israel graft probe


Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a charismatic rabbi with a large and influential following in New York, has been questioned in Israel on allegations that he tried to bribe a senior Israeli police investigator, Israeli media report Friday. The deepening legal scrutiny of Rabbi Pinto in Israel comes as his former top aide appeared in federal court in New York Friday, amid an FBI campaign finance probe of a congressman accused of pressuring Rabbi Pinto’s followers for illegal campaign donations.

Pinto is alleged to have been caught in a sting offering a senior Israeli police investigator a $200,000 bribe for information concerning a money laundering investigation, Ma’ariv reported.

Rabbi Pinto was questioned Thursday by Israeli police “on suspicion of having tried to bribe chief of the Police Investigation Division Brig.-Gen. Ephraim Bracha,” Maariv’s Avi Ashkenazi reported.

“Escorted by detectives and wearing a wire, the officer, [Bracha], received $100,000 in cash from Pinto, in exchange for which he was to provide information about the investigation into Hazon Yeshaya, a charity organization,” Maariv wrote.

Pinto’s attorney told the paper the rabbi has cooperated in answering the police’s questions and has done nothing wrong.The rabbi and his wife have been released to house arrest in Ashdod, Israel to answer additional questions, reports said.

Rabbi Pinto, 38, has developed an influential following in both Israel and the United States, and has close ties to US lawmakers. In August, the FBI arrested the rabbi’s former top aide, who had worked as a fundraiser for New York Congressman Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island). Al-Monitor reported in August that the top seven donors to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s 2008 campaign were from members of Rabbi Pinto’s congregation.

Ofer Biton, the former aide to Rabbi Pinto and fundraiser for Grimm, had a status hearing in his case before US District Court Judge Roslynn Mauskopf Friday, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York told Al-Monitor Friday.

Biton also informed the court Friday that he has retained a second defense lawyer, Alan Vinegrad, who used to be the US attorney in the district.

Biton, arrested on an immigration fraud charge in August, was released to house arrest last week after a former business partner of Grimm’s put up his $1.5 million bail.

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Ex-aide to rabbi, US lawmaker due in court

An attorney for an Israeli fundraiser arrested by the FBI on an immigration fraud charge tells Al Monitor that he plans to take the case to trial. He also refuted any suggestion that someone other than his client is paying his legal fees.

Ofer Biton, a former fundraiser to Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island, NY) and former aide to Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, was released to house arrest last week after a one-time business partner of Grimm’s paid his $1.5 million bail. Federal authorities are investigating Grimm over allegations that he accepted illegal campaign contributions from members of Pinto’s congregation.

Late Thursday, Israeli media reported that Rabbi Pinto himself had been remanded to house arrest in Israel after allegedly trying to bribe an Israeli police investigator. The reports allege that senior Israeli police investigators had taped Pinto offering a bribe of $200,000 for information on a money laundering investigation concerning him or his associates. Pinto’s attorney told Israel’s Maariv that the rabbi had done nothing wrong and had been cooperating in answering all of the police’s questions.

Biton is due to have a status hearing in his case on Friday, John Meringolo, Biton’s defense attorney, told Al Monitor in a phone conversation this week. Authorities have been seeking to get Biton’s cooperation in their federal campaign finance investigation of Grimm, a freshman Republican who is running for re-election next month. But to date, Biton has refused to cooperate, and Meringolo said he plans to bring the case before a jury.

US prosecutors, arguing against Biton’s release at his bail hearing last week, reportedly alleged that the man who paid Biton’s bail, New York restaurant developer Bennett Orfaly, maintains close ties to his former business partner Grimm, as well a convicted member of the Gambino crime family, the New York Post reported.

“Staten Island Rep. Michael Grimm investigated the Gambino crime family as an FBI agent — before opening a restaurant with a business partner so close to one of the mob clan’s capos, he considers him an ‘uncle,’ according to sources and court documents,” the New York Post wrote.

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‘Eerie quiet’ at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar after protests

Tehran’s usually bustling Grand Bazaar was “eerily quiet” on Thursday, a day after rare protests over Iran’s plummeting currency swept through the heart of the Iranian capital.

The Grand Bazaar “was mostly shuttered, with only a few street-side shops open,” Agence France Press reported.

“America wants us to bend, but we have our pride,” a clothing merchant at one of the few open shops told the AFP.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asked about the protests Wednesday, said sanctions had likely not been a key factor in Iran’s recent currency woes. But she said, Iran could move swiftly to exit the situation by “working with the P5+1” to ease international concerns over its nuclear program.

European foreign ministers would probably announce additional sanctions on Iran at a meeting mid October, a senior European diplomat, speaking on background Wednesday, said. The measures would likely focus on closing loopholes in a European ban on the import of Iranian oil that went into full effect in July, and on cutting off banks that deal with Iran’s banking sector.

The diplomat said that a meeting of the P5+1 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week had been very short and almost symbolic, deciding chiefly that the group’s public message would be to stress its “unity.”

But perhaps belying that message, the diplomat revealed that while Clinton and foreign ministers from France, the UK, Germany and China attended the ministerial meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Russia had not sent its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, but rather its lower level UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin. Continue reading

Protests erupt in Iran amid panic over rial drop


Protests erupted in central Tehran Wednesday after police closed black market currency exchange shops amid panic over the steep plunge in the value of the Iranian currency.

The protests in Tehran’s central Bazaar district, some calling for the resignation of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, come as the value of the rial to the dollar has plummeted by over 40% in the past week, as Iranians rushed to buy hard currency.

According to purported video of the protests posted to YouTube, some of the protesters shouted chants calling on Tehran’s “dignified” merchants to “support us, support us.” Other chants called on the Iranian regime to “leave Syria, think of us“–a reference to Iran’s efforts to prop up its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The value of the rial continued to fall after Ahmadinejad gave a speech Tuesday in which he blamed international sanctions and a handful of Iranian speculators for the rial’s drop, and urged Iranians to stop selling their rials to buy foreign currency.

But external factors alone do not account for the rial’s latest dive, some economists said.

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Tech, attributed the precipitous fall of the rial over the past week to the government’s decision to put more funds into a central exchange for approved importers and exporters. “Because they moved it suddenly,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Tuesday, there was a shortfall in the free market.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters Wednesday, also said internal Iranian government decisions–“having nothing to do with the sanctions”–had played a role in the rial’s dive. “Of course the sanctions have had an impact as well,” she said, adding, “but those could be remedied in short order if the Iranian Government were willing to work” with the international community to resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

While ostensibly fueled by economic anxiety, rumors swirled that the rial protests Wednesday may also have been spurred in part by rival political factions hostile to Ahmadinejad, some Iran analysts said.

“I think we must be careful before jumping into any kind of conclusion about this particular protest,” Nazila Fathi, a journalist previously based in Iran for the New York Times and currently a fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for International Security, told Al-Monitor by email.

“It might be part of the attack against Ahmadinejad to bring him down before his term is over,” Fathi said, noting the hostile tone of speeches this week by Ahmadinejad and one of his chief political rivals, Iran parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

Iranian media reports said over 100 people were arrested in the protests Wednesday. Meantime, journalists with the BBC and RFE/RL Persian services reported that their satellite broadcasts into Iran had been jammed Wednesday, to impede Iranians seeing news of the protests.

Iran watchers said the economy-fueled unrest was unlikely to be a one-off affair, given Iran’s economic predicament is likely to only get worse in the months ahead because of its dispute with the international community over its nuclear program.

“Iran’s economic outlook is more limited than at anytime in 50 years,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said at the Woodrow Wilson forum Wednesday.

“There are tremendous opportunity costs” to Iran for refusing to budge on its nuclear program and other policies, she said. “These are revenues and markets that will never be recaptured” and Iran’s ambitions for economic development and trade will be “clipped in the long term in a way that is degrading for the country.”

While Iran can weather sanctions, “the average citizen is very distressed,” and “in the short term, Iranian industry is suffering,” Bijan Khajehpour, another specialist on the Iranian economy, told the Wilson Center forum.

“The Iranian regime is going to face immense pressures in the months ahead,” agreed Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, in an email to Al-Monitor. “President Ahmadinejad, in particular, is in big trouble.”

“This is not just about the currency crisis,” Nader added, predicting greater instability in the country. “This is about everything that’s wrong with Iran today.”

–With Barbara Slavin  (@barbaraslavin1), Al-Monitor’s Washington correspondent, and Eskander Sadeghi-Boroujerdi (@eborujerdi), of Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse news blog.

Top seven donors to Eric Cantor 2008 campaign followers of Rabbi Pinto

An influential Orthodox rabbi whose former aide has been arrested in a federal campaign finance probe has ties to one of the most powerful members of Congress: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, I reported on the front page Thursday.

Indeed, further examination of federal campaign filings by Al-Monitor Saturday indicate that the top seven donors to Cantor’s 2008 campaign are followers or associates of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, an Israeli-born mystic rabbi who has acquired a devoted States-side following since he moved to New York in 2005, including among real estate developers.

Together, the group of close Rabbi Pinto associates that made up Cantor’s seven top donors in 2008 gave about $330,000 to the Virginia Republican–almost 10% of the $3.9 million total Cantor raised for the 2008 race. None of them are from Virginia, and some had not previously given to US political campaigns.

Josef Ben Moha, of New Jersey, donated $48,100 to Cantor’s Victory Fund on April 11, 2008–his only campaign donation in US records. Moha is listed as managing director of the company, Livono (or Livorno) Partners, whose CEO Ben Zion Suky donated $48,100 to Cantor’s 2008 campaign on the same date. Suky serves as the “right-hand man…. translator, gatekeeper and conduit to the outside world” for Rabbi Pinto, the Forward reported last year. He also owns property with Rabbi Pinto’s wife, as well as a porn DVD distribution business.

Haim Milo Revah, of California, donated $48,100 to Cantor on April 21, 2008. “When Haim Revah, a real-estate magnate who once owned the Lipstick Building where Bernard Madoff was a tenant, brooded about purchasing the Bank One tower in Dallas two years ago, the rabbi [Pinto] suggested a maximum bid that proved to be the winning price: $216 million,” the Wall Street Journal reported in February 2011, citing Revah: “I don’t know how the rabbi did it, but at the end of the day, it was the best price possible.”

Haim Binstock, and his wife Gallya Binstock, together donated $91,600 to Cantor’s campaign on October 31, 2008. (It was one of only two Haim Binstock campaign donations in US records, following a $300 contribution to the NRCC in 2004.) Binstock’s business partner Ilan Bracha, and his wife Mati Bracha, also donated $91,600 to Cantor’s campaign on the same date, campaign filings show.

In 2008, “Bracha, one of the city’s top-selling residential brokers, and his partner developer Haim Binstock paid $1.65 million” to buy a ground floor space in Manhattan’s the Heritage at Trump Place that “they plan to donate …for [a synagogue for Rabbi Pinto’s] use,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Bracha, “also from Israel, met Rabbi Pinto shortly after moving to New York and struck up a close relationship,” the Journal report said. “‘He’s like a mentor and a father to me,” Bracha told the Journal in 2008 about Rabbi Pinto. ‘He has a red phone to God.'”

Rep. Cantor, the second most powerful member of Congress, is also one of its most successful fundraisers. Since the 2009 party-switch of then Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Cantor is also the only elected Jewish Republican in Congress. Continue reading

Yahoo Activist Daniel Loeb’s Next Battle

Will hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb do to Obama what he did to Yahoo?

After waging battle with Yahoo’s board for months, the activist shareholder and Third Point LLC founder has now completed what amounts to total regime change at the company. Having upended the company’s board and helped oust its last CEO, Scott Thompson, Loeb played a key behind the scenes role in recruiting Google’s Marissa Mayer as Yahoo’s new CEO, AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher reported Tuesday.

Now Loeb and his new Yahoo CEO recruit Mayer share the goal of boosting Yahoo’s fortunes. But they find themselves on opposite sides of the 2012 US presidential race.

Loeb this month co-hosted a $25,000-person Hamptons fundraiser for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va), the Los Angeles Times reported.

Mayer, 37, by contrast, “is an active Democratic fundraiser,” who hosted a 2010 fundraiser at her Palo Alto home for President Barack Obama, “and has given to Obama annually since 2007,” Politico reported Tuesday.

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Caviar wars: Israeli kibbutz gets in on Caspian delicacy

A socialist kibbutz north of Israel’s Sea of Galilee is making inroads in the caviar business–traditionally the domain of arch rival Iran and Russia, ABC News’ Alexander Marquardt reports:

Dr. Hurvitz Avshalom is the resident biologist for Karat Caviar, Israel’s only sturgeon farm and a growing presence in the caviar market once ruled by Russia and Israel’s arch-enemy Iran. With a ban on fishing sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, all legal exported caviar these days comes from farms.

But Israel is known more for its hummus than its caviar and this traditionally socialist kibbutz in the rolling hills north of the Sea of Galilee is one of the last places you’d expect to produce a food that can retail for $2,500 per pound. Continue reading

US to announce more countries waived from Iran sanctions

The United States will soon announce a list of more countries to receive waivers from US sanctions on Iran’s central bank, set to go into effect later this month, Reuters reports:

The latest round of U.S. sanctions come into effect on June 28 and aims to cut Iran’s oil revenue to pressure Tehran into halting its nuclear program, which Western powers suspect is aimed at developing nuclear arms.

The U.S. can exempt countries from sanctions if they make significant reductions to crude imports, and granted a waiver to Japan and 10 European countries in March.

The official declined to give more details on which countries would join the exemptions list, but said the U.S. and South Korea had made progress in talks. Continue reading